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Wyden talks FEMA aid, vaccine at Jackson County town hall

From his reaction to reports of thousands of denied local FEMA claims to the COVID-19 vaccine’s importance for restoring an “economic magnet” in the Rogue Valley, Sen. Ron Wyden touched on a host of issues Saturday that are important to Jackson County.

During an online town hall, residents voiced questions on topics ranging from concerns about working class Southern Oregonians who lost their homes in the September fires, to the state of the local performing arts industry.

Jeanne Chouard of Ashland brought up a news report from earlier this month showing that FEMA denied about 57 percent of claims after the Almeda fire, raising concerns about bureaucratic hurdles impacting the recovery from a fire that affected working class and low-income Southern Oregonians.

“We really can’t afford to lose these people in our community,” Chouard said.

Wyden said that he and Sen. Jeff Merkley are investigating the denials first reported by Jefferson Public Radio because he’s “concerned about the pattern,” but Wyden acknowledged that the process is cumbersome.

Those denied FEMA assistance can appeal, Wyden said, and sometimes “it’s as simple as correcting a document.”

Other times, however, the application is denied because of fraud.

Wyden brought in Dolph Diemont, federal coordinating officer for the FEMA Region 10 Incident Management Assistance Team, who touched on a “serious issue with fraud” that’s at a “rate higher than usual” following the Almeda fire among other recent disasters.

“To tell you the truth, we’ve had 24,083 applications and approximately 9,000 of those applications are considered fraudulent — from outside of the state, from people that weren’t even involved and it wasn’t their primary residence,” Diemont said. “We have to investigate every single one of those cases.”

By law, FEMA has to confirm “certain requirements” for eligibility before it can help, according to Diemont. Those requirements include proof of ownership, proof that the individual resided in the residence, and that the individual wasn’t covered by insurance.

“I know a lot of people lost a lot of documentation during the fire,” Diemont said. “We’re aware of that, and we have people that are standing by and personally helping all the way through the process to recover those documents.”

He encouraged anyone denied who’s eligible to appeal and pursue their claim.

“We want to help, I assure you,” Diemont said.

Chouard touched on how the fire impacted Rogue Valley residences in manufactured home parks, and asked Wyden to “possibly give them a break.”

Wyden said her point was “well taken,” but stopping people “ripping off the program” ensures that aid goes to people who have a legitimate claim.

“FEMA has approved a substantial applications for assistance,” Wyden said. “That is always cold comfort to people that are being denied without an explanation, and we’re going to get them one.”

Wyden said he toured Willow Estates in White City on Saturday, where many Southern Oregonians in FEMA trailers are stationed, and said a key concern he heard largely surrounded “where they’re going to go for shelter next.”

“The flames of this array of fires may be extinguished, but Oregonians’ need for recovery is still very fresh,” Wyden said.

Eleanor Hobson of Ashland touched on the pandemic’s impacts for those working in performing arts. She described graduating last year with degrees in theater arts and business, and “pretty much no opportunities left” for live entertainment workers.

“We especially feel like in Southern Oregon ... a lot of arts workers are really, really hurting,” Hobson said.

Wyden touched on his efforts to extend jobless benefits to freelance, gig and other self-employed workers “for the first time in history.”

“I’m working to make that permanent in the new COVID bill that congress is working on,” Wyden said.

He described cosponsoring the Save Our Stage Act, that made $15 billion available for live theaters, music venues and workers around the country.

“I’ve been pushing particularly to help folks at the Shakespeare Festival, which was in kind of a unique kind of status,” Wyden said.

The underlying issue, Wyden said, is the COVID-19 pandemic and access to the vaccine.

“When people get vaccinated, people are going to feel better about getting out and traveling and going to wonderful places like Southern Oregon,” Wyden said. “It’s a big economic magnet.”

Once people are vaccinated, Wyden believes employers will start hiring again and because of supply and demand will lead to wage increases. Toward that end he supports utilizing the Defense Production Act to produce more vaccines.

“These pieces are all interrelated,” Wyden said.

Seth Kaplan, Executive Director of A Greater Applegate, formerly known as Greater Applegate Community Development Corporation, brought up a lack of healthcare and telecommunications infrastructure in rural Southern Oregon. Healthcare resources are limited in the area, some lack cell service and others lack internet service before asking, “What can we do together to address these inequities throughout the Applegate Valley and other rural areas throughout Oregon?”

Wyden said his work removing red tape restrictions on telemedicine is one key part of the problem.

“The second big part of the problem is broadband,” Wyden said. “You cannot have big league quality of life with little league communications ... businesses can’t operate.”

The latest COVID relief package includes $3 million for broadband in rural areas, but another economic pillar for the region will be a pair of environmental bills this month.

One that Wyden announced Friday is known as the 21st Century Conservation Corps Act, which would “make significant investments for wildfire resiliency, and provide an economic boost for rural economies,” according to a release from Wyden’s office.

Another, which Wyden and Merkley cosponsored earlier this month, is the River Democracy Act, which seeks to extend Wild and Scenic protections to nearly 4,700 miles of rivers nominated by Oregonians, which Wyden’s office says is “the largest Wild and Scenic Rivers effort in our nation’s history.”

“I think this is going to be a real shot in the arm for our small communities,” Wyden said.

Wyden said that although he lives in Southeast Portland he knows he’s “dealing with two Oregons” — describing a Portland area that’s more prosperous than areas such as the Rogue Valley and largely unscathed from the September fires.

“My job is not to represent the state of Portland,” Wyden said. “It’s my job to represent every nook and cranny in our state.”

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

Sen. Ron Wyden, center, walks with FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer Dolph Diemont, left, while touring Willow Estates in White City and meeting with Southern Oregonians displaced in the Alemda Fire Saturday. The tour was prior to an online town hall Saturday afternoon. Larry Stauth Jr. / for the Mail Tribune